On April 10th USA Today published a story discussing potential dramatic league changes the MLB has discussed for the 2020 season. The changes would involve dissolving the traditional AL and NL and creating two new leagues based on spring training homes. The goal would be to separate teams geographically while allowing teams to play in home fields that they are familiar with. Aside from new divisional rivalries, another key component is a universal DH. Here are the proposed divisions:
There are a million different potential takeaways here. You could write a number of different articles about the fantasy impact. From a fantasy perspective, the universal DH gives players such as Joc Pederson and Gavin Lux a big boost. On the contrary, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are among fantasy losers if they end up playing a full season away from Coors Field. That being said, I am going to analyze the proposed change from a team context and simply which teams are in a better situation to win games. I am going to assume, regardless of the number of total games, a higher concentration of games are played within division and the Cactus league playing the Grapefruit league is more rare, similar to traditional inter-league play. There are rumors of potential play-off structure changes but I am going to still assume that the best team from each division is guaranteed a playoff spot. I will be referring to Fangraphs’ projected 2020 standings. These standings assume a 162 game season and no divisional or schedule changes. But they DO consider roster changes than have occurred in the off-season and are a fair representation of each team’s expected 2020 performance.
Cleveland Indians (and the Chicago White Sox)
The Indians are coming off of a nice little 93 win season. Despite 93 wins, this was their first playoff miss since 2016. The Indians were gearing up in 2020 for another season of beating up on far inferior opponents while avoiding the need to go “all-in”. Trading away Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and potentially Francisco Lindor this year, the Indians have mastered the art of trading away just enough talent to remain competitive in a weak division. Well, the gig is up. The AL Central had a winning percentage of 46% in 2019. In fact, the only other division with an overall losing record was the AL East with a record of 404-406 (49.9%). In 2019, the AL Central had an abominable run differential of -338. Yeah, -338. The next worst in the MLB was +18 by the NL West. Going into 2020, Fangraphs’ projected standings pegged the AL Central at 48.9% winning percentage and -102 run differential, both still the worst in baseball.
Unfortunately for the Indians, with this proposed change they would lose in-division rivals of the Royals, Tigers, and Twins, and add to their regular schedule the Reds, Angels, and Dodgers. That’s taking a projected 2020 winning percentage of 46.9% and replacing it with 54.1%. The Cactus League is projected a 53.2% winning percentage, ranking highest across this hypothetical MLB league structure by 1.5%. This goes hand in hand with a +258 run differential, a projected run difference 104 runs higher than the next best division. This is literally the case of going from the worst division in baseball to the best. The same situation applies to the White Sox although I feel the implication is higher for the Indians as they have thrived in recent years by trading away assets and still managing to be a regular in the playoff picture. The Indians have a middling prospect system (preseason 12th ranked by MLB.com) and their window to win could close after 2020 if Lindor does change teams. The White Sox have a different mindset as an organization and have acquired extraordinary young talent to hopefully compete for years beyond 2020.
The Astros have won the AL West in three straight seasons. With a hypothetical move to the Grapefruit East, the Astros enter a division that put up a 53.6 winning percentage in 2019 (best of all the proposed divisions). The new division would place the Astros head-to-head with a group of NL teams, two of which were 2019 playoff contenders (Nationals, Cardinals, Mets, and Marlins). Astros hitters are already under a high level of scrutiny heading into 2020. Nobody knows how much their 2019 season benefited from the illegal sign-stealing scandal, but I assume any illegal activity from 2019 will have to stop in 2020. What I do know, is that the Astros’ core has been beating up on the AL West pitchers for the last three years, with or without knowing the pitch. Well in this format, Altuve, Bregman, and Springer can say goodbye to Andrew Heaney, Marco Gonzales, and Mike Minor, and say hello to Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Jack Flaherty and Stephen Strasburg (finished 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th in NL Cy Young voting in 2019 respectively…just ridiculous). This would become the most pitching heavy division in the MLB. The Astros’ AL West competitors finished 6th, 23rd, 25th and 26th in the MLB as far as runs allowed per game in 2019. The new division peers ranked 5th, 9th, 10th, and 19th. The Astros could find themselves in a highly difficult offensive environment. I don’t think a cakewalk for the division pennant would be quite as easy.
As if I didn’t already feel bad for the pitchers on the Orioles. On the bright side, they wouldn’t have to deal with Gleyber Torres this year (1.512 OPS and 13 HR in 18 games against the Orioles in 2019). On the not bright side (or rather, dark side?), they would have the pleasure of regular dates with Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman, Nelson Cruz, and Josh Donaldson. The Grapefruit South league would look similar to the current AL East (minus the Yankees and Blue Jays, plus the Twins and Braves). While the Orioles clearly would benefit from the Yankees leaving their division, the Braves and Twins enter the realm with offenses that ranked 7th and 2nd respectively in 2019. The Orioles aside, this new division is projected for a +265 run differential in 2020 by Fangraphs with a 54.2 winning percentage. If this new divisional split were to go into place, the Orioles are a serious threat to lose even more games than they did in 2019 (108).
And the rich get richer. 2019’s best offense in baseball can welcome the idea of the Phillies, Blue Jays, Pirates, and Tigers. These four teams finished 18th, 20th, 27th, and 28th respectively in runs allowed per game in 2019, all worse than league average. The Yankees offense would again lead the MLB in runs, and by a landslide. Yankees aside, this division won 40.8% of games in 2019. For perspective, these four teams were outscored by 608 total runs in 2019. The Phils, Pirates, Blue Jays, and Tigers finished 16th, 24th, 26th, and 30th overall in the 2019 standings. This division would look like the Monstars versus the Tune Squad in Space Jam. I would look forward to watching the Yankees put up football scores in 2020.
The Athletics have found themselves stuck in the shadow of Houston for years. The A’s are really good, but they can’t win the AL West. The Cactus League Northeast presents lesser competition. Fangraph’s 2020 projected standings have the A’s at 87 wins, putting them two games up on the Cubs and the best in the proposed division. The Athletics are a young team oozing with potential. Jesus Luzardo, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and A.J. Puk could be a sneaky dominant four-some in this division. Ramon “Lazor” Laureano and 2019 gold glovers in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson helped build the 4th best defense in the MLB in 2019. The A’s were allowed the 6th lowest runs per game in 2019 and I think they could threaten for #1 in 2020 if they can escape from Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Joey Gallo and the rest of the AL West. Overall, the Cactus Northeast division is pretty even. The Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Rockies all benefit from a more level playing field. Any of these four could emerge as the division victor but the Athletics would be the early favorites to finally capture a division title.
The Brewers could finish with the best record in baseball. That was not a typo. 100 wins on a full-season basis is definitely possible. Similar to the Yankees, the Brewers are headed into a weak division. The NL Central was one of the tightest divisions in 2019 with the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals all finishing above .500. Fangraphs projects the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds all winning between 81 and 85 games in 2020. There are four legitimate teams that could take the division. In the Cactus Northwest, the Brewers escape from the competitive NL Central and would compete against the Padres, Royals, Mariners, and Rangers. These four teams combined for a 42.4 winning percentage in 2019 with a -488 run differential. The Brewers would utterly dominate this level of competition. Give Yelich the MVP crown now.
The 2020 MLB landscape is fluid and ever-evolving. The latest news would have serious implications for individual teams. There are still a lot of question marks at this time, but there are some clear winners and losers if the Cactus and Grapefruit League structure were to go into place.